From outside it sounded like a Santeria initiation. I heard the call of the bata drums, then the lead voice, followed by the chorus to Eleggua, the trickster orisha and the spirit of the crossroads:
- Moyuba o moyuba onsba Ache moyuba oris ha
Sung in Lucumi, the Yoruban language spoken in Cuba, the song came floating out onto Ray Street in North Park from what looked like an old storefront. Inside, I saw three seated bataleros, all of them white, with their two-sided, hourglass-shaped drums strapped horizontally on their laps.
When the lead drummer played a call on the iya, the largest bata, the second drummer answered on the itotele, as a third . drummer held down a repeating rhythm on the okonkolo, the smallest bata.
The interlocking rhythms, played with six hands, formed a choppy, syncopated conversation, in open and closed tones, that sounded like human speech.
And it was, albeit in the African Yoruban dialect. When the iya sounded “Ogun,” the itotele answered with “la topa”; and when the iya spoke “abu, ” the itotele came back with “kenke. ”
Meanwhile, various bells strung around the mouth of the iya set off waves of jingling. Two dozen dancers moved across a floor covered with soft mats. A shirtless black youth with skin the color of cafe latte danced near a 20-ish sylph with long blond hair and a nose ring. A lean, boyish woman with sullen lips and a zebra tattoo across her shoulder danced alongside a tall, full-figured black woman with dreadlocks and a traditional African dress. Sweating in the early-afternoon heat, they gracefully arched and dipped, approximating the movements of Eleggua, a god known to use a hooked branch to push underbrush out of the way.
But this wasn’t some toque or possession ritual. No babalaos, the high priests of the Santeria religion, were present. There were no burning candles, no sacrificial animals, and no believers ready to surrender their spirits so that the orishas, the powerful gods and goddesses in the Yoruban religion, could inhabit them. This was an Afro-Cuban drumming and dance class at the Baraka Center for Drum and Dance. And on the grand opening weekend, people were getting a taste of Afro-Caribbean magic as embodied in bata drums.
Less than five minutes away, other San Diegans were pounding on drums. Paulo Mattioli, a djembe teacher and drum builder who grew up in Encinitas but now lives in Los Angeles, was conducting a class in West African percussion. As Mattioli, an Italian-American, played the djembe, a powerful drum that originated in Guinea, his students learned the various hand movements and tones of the instrument. Still farther away, at San Dieguito Park, a gathering of drummers, some of them from men’s groups throughout the area, formed a large drum circle and started playing their djembes and other drums. A few were skilled, but most were novices.
A few hours later, I went to Croce’s and heard Gene Perry, a black conga player, lead his Latin band, Afro Rumba, through a set of tropical funk laced with plena and bomba, traditional African rhythms that took root during colonial days in Puerto Rico, where Perry grew up. Afterwards, I stopped off at the U.S. Grant Hotel and caught a late-night set by Equinox, a mediocre Latin jazz band powered by Tommy Aros, a great Mexican-American percussionist who played wickedly funky mambos and rumbas.
San Diego, better known for banda music, grunge, and Jacuzzi jazz, didn’t necessarily spring to mind when I thought of great drumming. The San Francisco Bay Area, with a much larger and more diverse multicultural community, is the Western epicenter for African drumming and dance. And Los Angeles is home to such great percussionists as Francisco Aguabella, the Cuban drummer who brought the first consecrated set of bata drums to America in the ’50s. But with small communities of Puerto Ricans and Brazilians, a sizable African-American population, and large numbers of Mexican-Americans and Anglos living and working side by side, San Diego is no longer deaf to exotic polyrhythms and subtle configurations of clave, the pulse of African-style drumming.
Master drummers ignited a small but passionate community dedicated to learning the music; Michael Spiro taught Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian percussion at San Diego State University in the early ’80s, and Miguel Do Kepinique and Jorge Alabe taught Afro-Brazilian percussion workshops later on. Likewise, Ibrahima Camara, the leader of Koumpo Senegalese West African Dance Company, and Diamno Coura, also from Senegal, who were here in the late 70s, turned the city on to the beauties of West African drumming.
Now in San Diego you can take lessons in Brazilian, Cuban, West African, and Indian drumming. You can also buy most any kind of drum you want—everything from giant djun djuns and djembes to bamboo slit drums and cajones, the boxes that are played on the streets of Havana. Even better, some local drummers are willing to share knowledge gleaned from trips to South America and the Caribbean, where they learn rhythms that won’t become popular here for many years. That makes the scene inviting for those who want to explore the deep waters of drumming. But not everyone is into sharing the rhythms, much less the radical roots from which the music springs.
And that’s the catch. Much of the growing interest in hand percussion features African or African-influenced drumming. But the African drum is a supremely charged icon. For American blacks, whose ancestors were brought to the New World in chains over three terrible centuries, the drum embodies the mystery and unconquerable spirit of Mother Africa. This was well known to European slavers, who took the instruments away, lest the slaves use its secret language for insurrections. Most whites who pick up an African drum are usually aware of its origin, dimly conscious of its power, but oblivious to its history and much else. The result: Some of San Diego’s leading black percussionists have nothing but scorn for what they see as the latest Anglo ripoff of African culture.